We’re delighted to say hello to Dr Samantha Walton, our new member of staff who will be leading our Environmental Writing and Ecocriticism module and contributing to the Chorographies: Case Studies in Place or Region module. This year Samantha will be teaching on the subjects of ‘Deep Time’, ‘Ecologies of Place’ as well as a strand on ‘Writing Scotland’.
Samantha Walton completed a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in 2013, specialising in detective fiction, psychology and law between 1920 and 1945. As a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Institute for Advanced Stuides in the Humanities (Edinburgh), she combined interests in environment, Scottish literature and the mind by focusing on the novels and nature writing of Nan Shepherd. Samantha is currently turning her doctoral research into a monograph, and aims to develop her postdoctoral work to produce a more detailed survey of British interwar landscapes and literature. Before joining the department at Bath Spa, she taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Teesside. In Edinburgh, Samantha co-organised Syndicate poetry and research series in collaboration with New Media Scotland, and in 2013 she was Bright Ideas Fellow and Poet-in-Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, working on lyric poetry and the life sciences.
Re-reading Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I was struck by a passage that reminded me of some the issues that came up recently when teaching Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain on our MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment. It was, to say the least, a surprising association between “a novel about books and technology, cryptography and conspiracy, friendship and love” and a description of eighteenth-century London. But here’s the passage from Sloan’s novel in which Neel Shah (CEO of a niche software company) and Kat Potente (evangelistic Google data-visualizer) are contemplating a New York sidewalk:
“It’s so small but there are so many people,” she says, watching the human flow. “They’re … it’s like fish. Or birds or ants, I don’t know. Some superorganism.” …
Neel nods knowingly. “The suburban mind cannot comprehend the emergent complexity of a New York sidewalk.”
“I don’t know about that,” Kay says, narrowing her eyes. “I’m pretty good with complexity.”
“See, I know what you’re thinking,” Neel says, shaking his head. “You’re thinking it’s just an agent-based simulation, and everybody out there follows a pretty simple set of rules” – Kat is nodding – “and if you can figure out those rules. You can model it. You can simulate the street, then the neighbourhood, then the whole city. Right?”
“Exactly. I mean, sure, I don’t know what the rules are yet, but I could experiment and figure them out, and then it would be trivial – “
Neel believes that no computer of Google’s could ever be big enough to analyse the city’s complex and organic interactions. The allusions are rich, the most obvious of which is to the Simcity and The Sims franchises. But Sloan makes a Google employee extol the possibilities of designing an algorithm for a city of people; a fact that brings to mind Google’s efforts to map and photograph the world in its entirety. Indeed, in a previous passage, Kat has used Google Street View to locate a secret library in New York. Both platforms have a set of related aims: to comprehend and model a complex ecology. But there’s a gentle irony in this scene that it is Neel who is sceptical about such modelling. It’s a question of scale, and – as any student of satire will know – comparing the ostensibly small with the apparently epic produces some interesting ironic effects. Neel’s company designs the software to enable 3D digital simulations of female breasts, and the irony of a dubious industry in simulating a relatively small part of the female anatomy critiquing the gargantuan designs of Google Earth cuts both ways. However, it is Neel that has the last word – the city cannot be modelled or contained – so Sloan seems to be directing the irony primarily at Kat’s, or Google’s, totalizing hubris.
Now on the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment, we were paying close attention to the modes through which eighteenth-century authors represent landscapes of various kinds, and at this point comparing Pope and Defoe’s attitudes to the city of London. So here’s the section from Defoe’s Tour in which he grapples with the size and complexity of early eighteenth-century London:
This great Work is infinitely difficult in its Particulars, though not in itself; not that the City is so difficult to be described, but to do it in the narrow Compass of a Letter, which we see so fully takes up Two large Volumes in Folio, and which, yet, if I may venture to give an Opinion of it, is done but by Halves neither.
Defoe, like Neel, acknowledges the limitations of contemporary technology: the attempt encompass London within a letter, when even John Strype’s 1720 multi-volume folio edition of Stow’s Survey is ‘done by halves’, may come at the cost of the complex ‘Particulars’ of the city. Defoe goes on to say that perhaps the City itself may indeed ‘be viewed in a small Compass’ (2:95). However, the attempt to contain and represent London as a whole is thwarted by its uncontrolled and complexly organic evolution:
It is the Disaster of London, as to the Beauty of its Figure, that it is thus stretched out in Buildings, just at the Pleasure of every Builder, or Undertaker of Buildings, and as the Convenience of the People directs, whether for Trade or otherwise; and this has spread the Face of it in a most straggling, confused Manner, out of all Shape, uncompact, and unequal. (2:95)
In response, Defoe circumscribes this vital London by drawing a ‘A LINE of Measurement’ (2:98), effectively creating a static model of London – a simulation, if you like – in order for it to be properly analysed.
There is a neat parallel between Defoe’s and Kat Potente’s – and Google’s – attempts to model the complex ecology of cities. Both of these scenarios speak to the desire to be, in the words of Michel de Certeau, ‘the solar eye’, the voyeur elevated above a city laid before them. Such a perspective ‘makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text’ and creates, he argues, a ‘panorama-city … a “theoretical” (that is, visual) simulacrum.’ It is a desire to overwrite the messy real city with a fictive version of the city.
Yet complicating such a desire, Defoe and (with the caveat of irony) Neel Shah are both also fascinated by what de Certeau calls the forces of ‘human agglomeration and accumulation.’ Partly out of frustration, but partly out of admiration, Defoe asks ‘Whither will this monstrous City then extend? and where must a Circumvallation or Communication Line of it be placed?’ (2:97). When Kat mentions Google’s ‘The Big Box’ (a fictitious project of huge interlocking modular servers, and a dig at Google’s search box), Neel responds, “It’s not big enough. This box” – Neel stretches out his hands, encompasses the sidewalk, the park, the streets beyond – “is bigger.” (128). For Neel and Defoe, the city is always poised to burst beyond the confines of book or search box.
 Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (London: Atlantic, 2013), pp. 127-28.
 Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols (London, [1724-25]), 2:94. Further references in brackets after quotations.
 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 92-93.
 Google increased the size of its search box in 2009.
Bath Spa University will be holding a postgraduate open day on Friday November 29th at Corsham Court from 2-4 pm. Grab the chance to meet some of the tutors and students on our fantastic MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment. Listen to us talk about our MA programme and take the opportunity to ask us questions. You’ll also get an opportunity to take a tour round our beautiful Corsham Court Campus.
Sign up for a place here.
For other future events see the BSU postgraduate events page.
I’m just leading our students through some fascinating texts that debate the human relationship with animals, so Steve Rose’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘Are animals in Hollywood films too human?’, is timely reminder of the complexities of that relationship. The article is an interesting critique of attempts by film-makers to reconcile the demands of narrative coherence and audience engagement with some modicum, at least, of fidelity to real animal behaviour. But the problem of anthropomorphism is by no means restricted to animals, and sometimes looking at other situations in which it arises can help us understand why it’s a challenge when it comes to films about chimps and grizzlies.
Perhaps most obviously, we anthropomorphise our deities. They are often represented as having a particular physical form – a long white beard, maybe, or flashing eyes like Athena – as well as all-too-human emotions such as jealousy, rage, love and mercy. The first philosophical critiques of anthropomorphism actually targeted our misrepresentation of the Christian God, not animals. But if it seems obviously a trivialisation of divine power to paint the creator of the universe with a beard, it’s less clear which emotions he might legitimately retain. Can God be spiteful? And, if not, why should we imagine he loves us? On the other hand, if God has no feelings at all, what kind of personal relationship can we have with him? Benedict Spinoza memorably attacked the ‘blind cupidity and insatiable avarice’ that leads us to imagine precisely the kind of god that will love us the most.
The same problem afflicts our thinking about animals. Anthropomorphism can certainly be a mistake: I might think a dolphin seems friendly because it appears to be smiling when in fact that’s the unalterable shape of its mouth. The cowering dog that the owner assumes looks ‘guilty’ about the empty dustbin is much more likely to be scared. But if we try to strip away every anthropomorphic accretion we end up with nothing at all we can say about animals, except merely to describe their actions. In any case, we can’t help it: we anthropomorphise cars and computers, accusing them of perversity and spite, much as we can’t help seeing faces in clouds and on Citroen 2CVs as well as on human heads. Our need to identify and interpret human agency is so great we tend to find it even in extremely implausible places.
‘Critical anthropomorphism’, as opposed to the crude, unreflective kind, requires that we avoid both jumping to conclusions based on trivial resemblances to human behaviour and complete denial of animals’ emotions and their kinship with us. It’s a complex problem, and it’s perhaps unrealistic to expact DisneyNature to attempt it with much intellectual rigour.
The terms ‘edgelands’ seems to be gaining a firmer foothold in the popular imagination. The book by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness made visible an idea that, as Robert Macfarlane pointed out in his review, was already gaining currency in recent discussions of the contemporary border between country and the city.
Iain Sinclair has been traversing the ignored borderlands of London in his fiction and his travelogue / psychogeographies for many years (most famously in London Orbital, 2002). Marion Shoard in 2002 defined it as the ‘apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory where town and country meet’. Alan Berger described such spaces as ‘drossscape’ in studies of the same name in 2006.
Now comes the musician Karl Hyde (from the techno-group Underworld), who has created a documentary film The Outer Edges with director Kieran Evans that charts the edgelands of Essex via the river Roding to the Thames Estuary.
 ‘Edgelands’ in Remaking the Landscape, edited by Jennifer Jenkins (Profile Books, 2002). http://www.marionshoard.co.uk/Documents/Articles/Environment/Edgelands-Remaking-the-Landscape.pdf [accessed 3/4/13]
Come along to our Open Day event on the morning of Saturday March 23rd and get to find out about our exciting MA! The session for the MA in Literature, Landscape & Environment will take place at Corsham Court: for full details please see here: http://www.bathspa.ac.uk/
The exhibition will be a “multi-media exhibition, featuring the work of a number of notable contemporary artists” and “uses Wordsworth’s life and poetry – and the manuscripts of William and Dorothy displayed in the museum – as the inspiration for sculpture, fine art, poetry, calligraphy, electronic music, and conceptual installation.”
It is curated by Mike Collier, Brian Thompson, and our own Professor John Strachan. The opening night reception is sponsored by Bath Spa University and speaking at the opening will be Steve May (Dean of the School of Humanities and Cultural Industries).
To book a place visit the Wordsworth Trust Museum website.
Dr Iain Woodhouse, a lecturer in Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh and an expert in satellite mapping and forest ecology has reproduced three paintings by Constable, Suerat, and Van Gogh with some or all of the trees removed.
On his blog Forest Planet he says that the project ‘came about as an attempt to visually represent “loss”‘ and you can click between the altered version and the original. In an interview with BBC News he argued that “It is crucial that trees do not disappear from our landscapes”, adding that “Trees are a vital global resource, providing fuel, shelter, clean water and food for many species including people, and helping to maintain a healthy atmosphere by harvesting carbon dioxide.”
The experience of viewing the photo-shopped paintings is odd; an uncanny experience a little like reading a well-known sentence from a novel and realising it is not what you remembered. Clearly the jarring effect is important. But I also wondered about the curious tension between such an aesthetic experience of loss and the reality of deforestation and the crucial role forests play in the Earth’s ecology. Certainly, the expanse of sky revealed in the altered versions, and the impression of heat in the Suerat and Van Gogh, intensify the feeling of a changed and oppressive new climate.
We’re holding an information session on our fantastic MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment. Grab the chance to meet us, listen to us talk about our MA programme and take the opportunity to ask us questions.
Date: Monday 14 January
Where: in the Castle at our Newton Park campus (Room CE.101).
If you’re interested in attending, or even if you’re unable to attend but would like to find out more about the course or be kept informed about future events, click here to register.
Two of our staff on the Writing and the Environment Research Centre and lecturers on the MA in Literature, Landscape, and Environment appear in the latest issue of Ecozon@: the European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment. The special issue entitled ‘The Invention of Eco-Futures‘ edited by Ursula K. Heise, features an interview with Richard Kerridge and poems by Professor Terry Gifford (and also an article by the MA’s external examiner, John Parham).